Spectacles of this nature are said to have originated around 275 BC, when Roman legions returned from the wars against Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in the tow of 145 African elephants that were part of this great king’s war engine. Rome had never seen elephants before although they had been used to devastating effect on Roman soldiery by Pyrrhus at Tarentum. The Romans’ sense of revenge overcame their sense of scientific curiosity: they ordered each and every one of the hapless African-Epirotan beasts to be hamstrung.
One of the most unkind and disgusting pastimes of the Romans (apart from throwing Christians to the lions) and the Byzantines, was the organised slaughter of animals for pleasure. Animals that would never encounter each other in the wild would be pitted against each other as spectators indulged in their appetite for gore, revelling in seeing a gentle giraffe being pitted against a bear from Asia or a fighting bull from Iberia or, very often against the emperor. The emperor Gordian I, for example, counted 100 giraffes among his public kills.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages, 1,000 years passed before the next giraffe appeared in Europe. The Crusades against Islam had caused the West to re-engage itself with the rest of the world and enter the fray of international politics. In 1486, the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, Qait Bey, sent a young female giraffe to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, in order to “entertain good relations with the Christians.” At the time, the giraffe had been forgotten by the west and the arrival of such an outlandish creature, a “cameleopard” as it was called, created a great sensation.
What was unknown until last century however, was that Europe’s relationship with the giraffe was much more ancient than ever expected and that the place where this relationship took place, was actually in Greece, in times prehistoric, far beyond the reach of the father of history, Herodotus. The marvels of modern science now place the original homeland of the giraffe, or to assume Don Burke of Burke’s Backyard fame predilection for Latin terms, Giraffa camelopardalis, a relative of the camel and the horse, both ancient and noble steeds, on the vast plains of Central Asia. Aeons before the Huns, the Kumans, the Petchenegs, the Avars and the Turks embarked on their own migration into the west, the Camelopardalidae, the ancestors of the giraffe, embarked on an epic migration of their own, crossing down into the Iranian plateau.
From there, they seem to have split into two groups. One of these crossed the Fertile Crescent, descended through Arabia and ended up in the Abyssinian highlands where they remained, evolved and multiplied throughout Africa. The second, dissident group, instead of heading for the south, took the more difficult journey through the Assyrian uplands, across the Armenian plateau until they came to Asia Minor. They seem to have flourished there and in the adjoining and then indistinguishable lands that later became the Aegean islands for quite some time. They did however, evolve differently from their southern cousins, remaining short-necked to the last. Last century, peasants from my father’s village in Samos, Mytilinioi, dug up a most mystifying skull. The whole area of Mytilinioi is a goldmine of fossils and the peasant’s plough has been throwing up remains for years. Yet the skull was unprecedented. It was only through painstaking research, much controversy and comparison of remains from China and Persia that scientists were able to ascertain that the skull was in fact the remains of a giraffoid, the only one to ever be found within the Greek borders. They named it aptly enough, Samotherium, the beast of Samos. Today, the grotesque skull is the unofficial mascot of the village, fittingly enough, as its populace are a rare breed, ever dwindling and in a state of living ossification.
Greece’s relationship with giraffes does not end there however. An Albanian slave from Kavala in Macedonia, one Muhammad Ali rose to be the head of the Mameluke army in Egypt and subsequently, between 1805 and 1849, to proclaim himself Sultan of Egypt, as a de jure but never de facto vassal of the Ottomans. Muhammad Ali had two dreams. The first was to modernise his sprawling empire. He did this by assiduously cultivating the Western Powers. His repeated requests for aides, advisers and scientists to modernise his country resulted in an immense transformation of Egyptian society. The second was to overtake the ottomans as the leaders of the Islamic World, by nibbling at the corners of the Turkic Empire.
In the first years of the Greek Revolution, the Ottoman sultan sought only limited military assistance from Muhammad Ali, fearful of bringing the huge Egyptian army of Sudanese slaves so close to Constantinople. That suited Muhammad Ali, as it became clear that the sultan could not win the war without him. The longer the sultan waited, the weaker he would be to deal with Muhammad Ali’s plans for independence. When the Egyptians were finally ordered to Greece in force in 1824, under the command of Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim, they devastated the Peloponnese and it soon seemed that the Greek cause was doomed. The atrocities of the Egyptian soldiers against the Greeks caused a great outcry in Europe, especially in England and France with public opinion clamouring for the immediate intervention of the West to save the Greek Revolution.
In an effort to forestall any such intervention and to appease the west, Muhammad Ali reverted to a tried and tested method of diplomacy that had served him well in the past. He decided to send the rulers of England and France a token of ‘deepest and darkest’ Africa, which, he hoped, would engage the fascination and gratitude of the powers and induce them not to intervene in the Peloponnese.
To this effect, in 1924, he ordered the capture of two giraffes from Abyssinia. One of these was sent to England, where it died soon after arrival and failed to impress the English. The other was sent to France where after an arduous journey up the Nile, across the Mediterranean and Gaul, it was installed in June 1827 in the Jardin des Plantes of Paris. She became a sensation. Glamorous women imitated her with their hair styled high a la Giraffe and in the streets and salons, men wore fashionably giraffique hats and ties. Now remembered as a beautiful but vague legend, France’s first living giraffe, now stuffed at La Rochelle, was a national icon, the envy of Europe, the subject of songs and poems, music hall sketches and political allegories, the namesake of public squares and even a form of influenza.
Ultimately, though the giraffe fascinated Parisians until its death in 1845, it did not have the effect that its donor intended. Britain and France intervened on the side of Greece at the battle of Navarino in 1827, ensuring the creation of an independent Greece. It is unknown whether the Greek καπεταναίοι knew of price Muhammad Ali paid for France and England’s non-involvement, nor what they would have made of the Abyssinian descendant of the Greek Samotherium. Yet undoubtedly, the African craze sparked off by the arrival of the giraffe in Paris, which culminate in an orgy of colonialism and environmental degradation, has its unlikely roots in a redoubtable little people’s quest for freedom, in a land where once the giraffe reigned supreme.